In the category customer success stories, Ligo customers share their experiences with starting their business. This time, we talk to Marcel Kempers, CEO and founder of Reef Support.
Reef Support developed a software to support coastal activities happening all over the world for a sustainable and blue planet. After setting up the award-winning Reef Support BV with Ligo’s help, Reef Support is now branching out by setting up a foundation, seeking to increase impact on local communities and ecosystems with the help of Reef Support’s tools and technology. We spoke to CEO and founder Marcel Kempers to learn all about Reef Support’s mission, how he started the company and how he plans to make the world a greener - or rather bluer - place with his software.
Could you briefly describe what Reef Support does?
“Reef Support BV is essentially a software company. We design digital platforms and applications that marine scientists and marine park officers can use to monitor the coral reefs and the natural environment. With our platforms they can collect data, process and derive information from it. That’s what our software does. We use different methods, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite data to provide insights about the oceans. Although we work with coral reefs, our tools can also be used to monitor agriculture (such as farming oysters and mussels), aquaculture and offshore marine farms. We can technically monitor everything that is offshore with our software.”
How did you get the idea?
“I got the idea when I was working with my previous startup in Indonesia. We talked to a lot of fisherman and people living at the coastline, who were suffering because the coral reefs were dying. There were no fish, and there were no tourists coming to look at the coral reefs anymore, putting them in a difficult economic situation. That’s when we started coming up with ways to help these people. When I came back to the Netherlands, I talked about it with a couple of my friends from the TU Delft, where we were all students. We decided to create a software application and it grew from there. I had to start everything from scratch, as my background is in aerospace engineering, which is very different from marine science. The learning curve was enormous, but that only helped in the end. Not only do I know (a little) about corals myself now, but we also have a few experts in the field of marine science in the Reef Support team.”
How did you prepare yourself for starting a company?
“I started my first company in the Netherlands when I was 21, from which I learned a lot. Over the years I learned how to handle the administrative things. As I already had some experience setting up companies before starting Reef Support, I knew how to go about it a bit more. The strategy is to create a good website that includes your vision and solution to a problem. Then you start sending out emails to potential clients. As soon as you get your first clients and you can ask to put their logos on your website, the ball starts rolling. That is the thing with starting a business, you just have to start doing it.”
How did Ligo help you with this?
“Ligo is great! I really like the service that Ligo provides, because it is super fast. Starting a VOF is quite easy, but a BV is more work. Ligo does everything for you through their online platform. On day one we uploaded the necessary documents and signed the contract. The next day we were already meeting with a lawyer and the day after our BV was incorporated. It was very nice that everything was concentrated in one online platform and that it all worked so fast. If we would have had to do everything ourselves, it would have taken us a lot more time and certainly a lot more work.”
Did you invest your own money when you started or were you able to get funds elsewhere?
“To me it is very important that my money and the money from my company stay separated, so we got funding from elsewhere. For instance, we got funding from the European Space Agency, the TU Delft, WWF Netherlands, the European Commission, and we also got some grants from the Dutch government. The fact that we got some early-stage funding was also one of the main reasons for us to turn Reef Support from a VOF into a BV. As a director of a VOF, you are personally liable for any debt. A BV helps us to protects ourselves from this by separating our personal assets from the BV and minimizing our liability.”
“That is the thing with starting a business, you just have to start doing it.”
Do you have any pitfalls or mistakes that other entrepreneurs can learn from?
“As an entrepreneur you make many mistakes every single day. I think one of the biggest learning points for me personally was that I had to learn how to work efficiently with other people. When you are just starting out as an entrepreneur and you are not yet working with a team, it is easy to get things done. You come up with your own idea and you can get it done in your own way. When you start working with a team, you have to take into account that there are people that might not have the same perspectives as you, which can lead to a loss of time and money. If you are running your company, you have to decide on the vision. You can compare it to a drummer in a band. The drummer cannot follow the tempo of the guitarist or the singer, he has to set the tempo himself, but in the end you create the melody together as a band. I learned that even though it is important to set a clear vision for your company, it remains very important to communicate well with the rest of your team. You have to find the balance between deciding the path your company is taking and taking other people’s opinions into account. People are amazing and they can produce miracles, but you have to communicate well with them in order to enable them to achieve this.”
What makes Reef Support special as a company? How do you set yourselves apart from companies that operate in the same area?
“One main thing why we’re doing well is that not many companies do what we do: creating software for coral reef monitoring. It’s still quite new. Only a few other people are working on the same software solution, and they are mostly based in universities and research institutes, which makes it is quite easy to collaborate with them. Now that we have established ourselves as doing this for a good cause, and we have a solid base, we can start innovating more. We are constantly innovating and trying to engage clients, by turning partners into clients, and turning clients into friends. We are very fluid, and we are constantly trying to change things around. Lastly, because we work with only a handful of organizations, we can tailor things exactly to their needs.”
You received a lot of media coverage with Reef Support after winning the Copernicus Masters prize, is this something that helped you? What is your experience with this?
“Receiving this much media attention was partly luck. We started receiving media attention before we even registered Reef Support as a BV, which definitely helped us grow. After being on the radio and people hearing about our company, we started getting contacted by a lot more people, which was very interesting to see. However, we were not quite prepared for the amount of media attention we got. A week after we won the Copernicus Masters prize (a global innovation competition at the forefront of the Earth Observation data utilization), we were contacted by more than 10 news stations. We were conducting interviews all day, which was something we had never experienced before. In hindsight, we should have made better use of this and kept it going. We were just riding the wave, but we could have pushed a bit harder to keep the attention on us. I would recommend other companies to be a bit more prepared for media attention because it can really help your company move forward.”
Do you encounter skepticism? How do you deal with this?
“The main skepticism we encounter is the question: can you survive from this business? Right now, we are not yet able to fully monetize our company with a single product, but there are more than one, well-functioning business models that we are currently implementing, so these questions don’t scare us. We are excited for the new developments with regards to our Foundation and the hands-on stuff we achieve besides the software development. That is very motivating.”
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
“In the beginning we had a lot of student volunteers. Working with students can be challenging too because students are not experts. Another thing that made this difficult was that because many volunteers were still studying, the priorities were not always on Reef Support. Creating great things takes time, but so does trying to motivate a team. That’s why at one point we had to put our foot down and decide: we are a serious company. That is why we decided to focus on Reef Support BV with full time team members. Right now, we are also incorporating a foundation (stichting) with Ligo to still involve student volunteers. We want to kickstart a student club who will take charge of the foundation, while we can focus on the product and business development at Reef Support BV.”
Where do you see Reef Support in 5 years? What are your plans for the future?
“In 5 years, I see the tools built at Reef Support being used by people around the world that monitor coral reefs and protect marine areas to collect and process data to standardize our knowledge on the state of our oceans. We hope this can help to standardize and optimize resources in the future.
Furthermore, in 5 years, but even sooner, the foundation will be running on its own as well. The focus of the foundation will be on creating conservatorships, setting up coral labs and establishing educational programs. One of our goals for the foundation is to send 500 people every year on a trip to interact with coral reefs to support education and awareness.”
What is your golden rule for starting entrepreneurs?
“To me there are really two golden rules for entrepreneurs. The first one is: take care of your team. The second golden rule is to find strategic partners and keep them close. It is very important to foster long term relationships with key people. When you want to start a new company, contacts are everything. If you know the right people, you can move ahead a lot faster.”
Do you want to start with your own company?
Do you want free advice that helps you with incorporating your very own BV? At Ligo, we are more than happy to help you out. Call us on 020-3031043 and we will help you out. We are also available on our online chat seven days a week. This includes weekends and evenings!